Whether you’re exhibiting or just attending, conferences cost a lot of money. South by Southwest (SXSW) entrance fees start at $450 just to attend the first half of the nine-day conference, minus the film screenings and concerts. Then there’s the hotel, food, bar tab, etc. And if you’re a small business with a hot product to launch, take a place in line. There are thousands of other entrepreneurial types also jostling for attention. Is the investment even worth it?
Promoting yourself at an event like SXSW is not for the timid. You have to have street smarts, fortitude and hustle, says Larry Chiang. He’s the founder of Duck9, a company launched to help college students improve their credit scores, and author of What They Don’t Teach You at Stanford Business School. Chiang has attended SXSW multiple times as a panelist, networker, and money-seeking entrepreneur. He never misses a chance to stick his foot in the door to widen it even more. “And it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” Chiang says.
He shared his tips with us about how to promote your business at a big event for little money.
- Blog strategically before you go. “Getting a focus on how your product works and how it will benefit others is critical . Don’t just blog about how your text-message marketing service works, identify an existing problem at SXSW and blog about how your service can solve it when you’re there.”
- Be a problem-solver at the event. “Now that you’re there, have a version of the product that will solve the problem. For example, I know a company that organizes small business expenses accounts. They saw how SXSW attendees walked around with pockets full of receipts. At the conference, they charged a fee to compile the receipts into a business-expense report attendees could take back to their company. Make a microcosm of your business at the event.”
- Network strategically. “The old formula was, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ The new formula is, ‘Who knows that you are an expert in your field?’ Who are the local influencers in the event area that can get you distribution? What SXSW-focused blogger can write about you? Find out and show them why you’re a thought leader. Offer a trade or a swap to promote them, too.”
- Host a party before or after the event. “It doesn’t have to be big; you can host an “awareness party” for 15 minutes that kicks off or ends the event. For this year’s SXSW, I am hosting an 11-minute party, inviting venture capitalists to speak at midnight-plus-one on the Friday SXSW starts. There’s no competition at the time, whereas there are eight others competing with you during lunchtime on Friday. Or find out when a speaker you wants to meet is talking, and have an event nearby after he’s done. Tech guru Guy Kawasaki usually speaks in the evening, and he needs to go somewhere to relax before catching a flight.
- Promote other people. “Talk up other businesspeople, and ask ones you want help from if you can help them out. At SXSW, most speakers want to be the star — so let them be the star of a reception you host in their honor. They have another chance to talk about their knowledge and, if they’re related to your field, you have the opportunity to show off your product.”
- Woo with flowers. “I really do send flowers to people I want to woo. There are only three [big] hotels in Austin. I go to the concierge with flower baskets and $20, and say, ‘I’d like to find out if these three people are staying here. If they are, I’d like you to give it to them.’ If flowers are over the top, send a fruit basket or a bottle of wine. And of course don’t forget a personalized note and your business card.”
For more ways to promote yourself inexpensively, check out Chiang’s article “Launch Your Startup at SXSW for $880.” And if you are at SXSW, stop by Chiang’s suite — he lists his hotel room number in the article for fellow entrepreneurs to come visit.